Is London clubbing as good as it used to be?

Posted By: The Wild Times

Words: Tom Kihl

Nightlife nostalgia always comes heavily rose-tinted. But with dramatic changes to the late-night landscape in recent years, was it actually better ‘back in the day’? Tom Kihl investigates.

Going out dancing is all about living in the moment, like Zen Buddhism but with loads more booze and lasers. That’s why standing still recording the DJ through a smartphone should always feel a bit shameful, or why the current vogue for broadcasting live sets from broom cupboards isn’t troubling too many club promoters.

And when that ‘moment’ on the dancefloor is good, it’s the best thing ever. You know what I’m talking about, or you wouldn’t even have read this far. But the problem with recalling the time of your life is that it makes everything that resembles it afterwards seem, well, a bit crap in comparison.

photo: the site of The-End / credit: Tom Kihl

Earlier this year I wrote an article entitled Top 5 Lost London Nightclubs of the 90s. It was a personal reaction to witnessing the lovely old Turnmills building being erased from the Clerkenwell landscape.

The feedback the story generated was unexpected and overwhelmingly touching. Many thousands of people shared their times at The End, The Cross and other seminal venues as being among their most cherished lifetime memories. But with these famous rave domes now consigned to history, the smoking ban having altered dancefloor dynamics forever, let alone the pressures of property development and noise complaints making it difficult for any sizable new venues to open (and stay open), does this city’s club scene still cut it like it undoubtedly used to?

Of course it does. Ask around though, and that view probably isn’t shared by many. But those in the ‘not as good as it used to be’ brigade are simply looking with jaded eyes. With 25-years of post-Acid House history, plus many more from the disco, new romantic and other eras, London has impeccable nightlife and club music chops. This long linage lends huge weight to all the music and creativity emerging from young producers and promoters out there right now. It’s deep within their DNA, even if they’ve never heard of a Junior Boys Own party or owned a piece of vinyl.

The ICA’s highly-rated show, ‘A Journey Through London Subculture, 1980s-Now’ deftly shows this history unfold, and how its impact is felt throughout today’s resolutely post-subcultural times. Or take a listen to many of today’s big tracks, many dripping with cheeky references and nods to the past, an increasing number of them gloriously, ridiculously retro, such as Sub Focus’ recent track ‘Turn Back Time’.
Despite the recycling and nostalgia, nightlife is constantly, necessarily on the move. Whatever hoodoo it is that makes a darkened room full of people suddenly epoch-defining quickly fades. Those attending Final Frontier, the much-lauded Friday night mash-up down in deepest Wandsworth, were known to utter that it wasn’t as good as the vast outdoor Sunrise and Energy raves a few summers before. Yet now we see it as an untouchable, golden era of multi-story carpark raving, where the sweat ran down the walls and techno was techno.

photo: secretsundaze at Kings X 2007 / credit: Nick Ensing

Similarly, it’s pointless to try and pinpoint which party was ever the true original. There was always something, somewhere before, that sowed a few seeds. Legendary Dingwall’s afternoon session Talkin Loud and Saying Something may not share much musically with the now international clubbing brand Secretsundaze, but they are closely aligned in the history books for turning London’s day of rest into a day of rave.

Perhaps it’s the capital’s need to always be at the cutting edge, to be locked in a relentless quest for the Next Big Thing that means the current offering is always seen by moaners as never quite good enough? Perhaps it’s our British tendency to treat clubbing, its history and its great destinations as culturally inferior to things like opera or theatre. Is that why there isn’t a blue plaque next to every arch or basement that saw thousands of people regularly have the time of their lives in there – something we’re working on remedying, by the way.

All that is certain though is that losing a few – even quite a lot – of the key nightclubs in the city can’t dampen the thumping 4/4 heartbeat of the place. It may be beating in a basement in Dalston rather than a warehouse in King’s Cross, but the party continues.

With the brash growth of EDM – with all its confetti cannon and cake-throwing hullabaloo – as the new face of electronic music at a global level, some will doubtless say London is yesterday’s destination. Only Ministry of Sound left fighting the good fight against property developers, while silver-fox promoters like Lost or Trade emerge occasionally to fly the flag for the golden era. But otherwise its gone the way of New York, the underground culture marginalised by money and gentrification, assaulted by new laws, new drugs, trends and technologies.

But if you’re 18, such talk is more than irrelevant. You dance upon the grave of all the great nights that have gone before, and so you should. That’s the ultimate way to pay homage to the past and keep the freshness nightlife requires to thrive, whether enjoyed in a 100 or 10,000 capacity space.

And if you’re still convinced the best days are behind us, then let’s celebrate that instead of moaning. This month, London’s electronic music heritage is going to be centre stage as former Muzik magazine compadres – IMS founder Ben Turner and Radio 1/Bestival honcho Rob Da Bank – debut LEAF, the London Electronic Arts Festival. It aims to “reclaim the legacy of London as a pioneering figure in the global electronic music movement” with parties, talks and installations.

Following that, Red Bull’s Revolutions In Sound event celebrates the great parties of the last 25 years in a money-can’t-buy TV bonanza up the London Eye. The life-affirming dancefloor moments are still there for the taking, London. Now let’s party.
Tom Kihl is a former deputy editor of DJ Magazine and Managing Editor of He currently co-owns and runs the acclaimed daily cultural guide

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